Thursday, September 28, 2006

Middle of Nowhere

The trail in Maine is as wild as it gets. Go up on a ridge at night, there's no lights from houses or cars. In the daytime, you rarely see the tracks of roads. It's pretty amazing. Back in Virginia, you could practically read by the light coming off towns at night.


Bethel, ME
Mile 1900-ish

I reached some sort of spiritual peak in the Whites, and now, I think, it's done. I'm hiking now just to get home, to be with Monica.


Maine and Punishment

Mahoosuc Notch, ME
Mile 1899

"We're not here to protect you from the wilderness," said an annonymous MATC (Maine Appalachian Trail Club) scientist.

That attitude shows.

(My longer post on this topic and conservation was eaten by VersaMail. Sometimes I hate my Palm. A lot.)

Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Last State

Gorham, NH
Mile 1878

Entering Maine tomorrow, the last state of this journey. Southern Maine is supposedly even more challenging that New Hampshire, but it is a lot lower, completely below treeline until Katahdin. Staying below treeline makes things a lot less complicated.

New Hampshire has been the most rewarding - and the most challenging- state.

Less than three hundred miles to go, now.

Spin the Black Globe for Me

Somewhere in the Carters, NH
Mile unknown

The usual 2PM nausea had set in. I had not overeaten this time, and I was drinking plenty of water. It was the third three thousand foot climb in six hours. I was at a limit. Frost coated the front of my clothing, a morning's frozen breaths. Face steaming in the air, I went inside.


"You're not here," I say.
"Of course not. I'm the remembering of a remembering of a remembering of something that was probably not even real in the first place"
"That cinches it. That's something I would say"
She is flickering like a bad DVD. There's virtually no visual memory of something this far back, far back when I was intoxicated on youth, vodka, and methamphetamine. What is it saying?
The pink globe has been spinning now for a while. It's got the Run Lola Run soundtrack in it. It's a good globe, hotter than the green globe but without the fiery oblivion hiding inside the last globe, the black globe. A flickering hand pulls down the spinning pink globe. Another song now. "'So I run faster, and you caught me here' Good choice. There's no more running now, is there?"
"You'll run forever."
"My loyalty has turned, you know. Some time ago. I feel nothing. I'm getting married next year."
"That's good. That's the point. It's almost done."
In the real world, I can tell that I am stumbling, stumbling badly, reeling from rock to rock as if struck by blows, cheek on granite. In this moment I am stuck inside the crook of two downed trees, snowflakes flying from their needles, my head in their branches. I feel terrible. I crane my head at the summit far above, no trees blocking the bitter wind up here. Wind chill coming up on zero now. Inside I move to change globes. A flickering hand offers the hated orb. It spins with malice, it spins with blood.
"Spin the black globe for me"
I take it. The black globe opens, and I am lost.


There has been a simple melody in my mind since I left Georgia, and it has maddened me that I could not remember where it is from. Now I know. It's from the movie Fargo, one of the incident themes. The main theme melody arises in my mind and I realize that it is a dirge.

I am walking the aisle to a vast funeral barge, but I do not look inside. I sit in the pews. Who is inside the barge, I do not know, and I do not want to know.
A vast, furred shape sits beside me. It is a bear. It is a bear, so much bigger than I could ever imagine a bear could ever be. Vast. Its paws dig into my back, urging, go- go and see. I do not want to, but I go, because the bear is at my back.

It's me. I'm dead. I've been dead for almost a decade now.

Me as I should have been a decade ago. Cold in the embrace of oak and water, ready to float to forever, blooded and dismembered.

The shock brings me back to the real world, where my body is still climbing mountains. The spirit goes back to the bear, deep in fur and filth.
"Oh God. Oh God. What is this? How does it end?"
I climb powerfully, endlessly weeping. Ahuh ahuh ahuh. I blow snot and climb. I climb. I climb. Three miles per hour now.
"This is the Day of Nine Dogs," says the bear, "And this is the time of your trial and initiation. There is strength in despair."


This is the time to realize that the whole of my being is a hole. It has no bottom. If I turned the Earth into ash and corpses it would not be filled. It turns brutally inside with a black hole's tidal foce, tearing bits off with its spin. It is not filled with vodka, or food, or even whole mountains. It is pain and life and it ends only with my own death.

But it is also a dynamo. Its magnetic field is fantastically powerful, so long as I orbit at the right distance. This is the thing to do- orbit the dynamo inside at the right distance. Don't wander out of it on your own inertia. Don't plunge inside and burst into flame. Dance with your inner singularity, orbit. Use it. Ride it.

The barge has not gone on its way yet. I hide my dead face with another piece of brush. Sometime, sometime soon, I will set this barge alight. Or perhaps I will never come back to this place, this room inside my mind.

"Can I come back here after today?", I ask.
"There is no after today," said the bear. "Everywhere is today. Today is a facet of all your tomorrows. This is the day of shamans, the day that is not a time but a place." The animal raises itself on its hind paws, to its full height of twenty feet. "Now . . . It's time to start running."

I return to light, to the outside world, and pick up speed. The rock face flies past me. I feel very strong. It is one of the best days of my entire life. This is what they mean when they say "peak experience".

Awe and Presidents

Mt Washington, NH
Mile 1843

Most of the trail in the White Mountains looks like the kind of grade that made my mother say things like, "Get back from the edge". It's the sort of playful trail that makes us want to meet trail planners and slowly choke them to death with a topo map. "Does the phrase 'contour line' mean anything to you? What about 'featureless thirty foot cliff we are expected to levitate over'?"

When the serious stuff comes up, though, the trail is all business: big rocks arranged in huge, but manageable steps, careful blazing, and helpful signs. The ascent of Washington was like that, with helpful placards warning "IF THE WEATHER IS AT ALL DUBIOUS, GET OFF THIS MOUNTAIN OR YOU WILL DIE. SERIOUSLY."

It didn't help that, the previous night at Mitzpah Hut, I scared myself silly reading Not Without Peril: 150 Years of Misadventure in the White Mountains. This lovingly annoted volume of human misery documents the many, many souls who came to ignomious ends on the slopes of the Presidentials, people often dying yards away from rescue, blinded by panic, fog, and hypothermia. Needless to say, I had my eye very close on a cold front that was due to hit that afternoon.

"It's got a lot of energy, and you can see there's a twenty degree differential there," said a wilderness first responder at Lake of the Clouds. We rushed up Washington, menaced by the grey- black shape that was the front, zooming in from the western horizon. It was a strangely cheerful climb. The two young gazelles in front of me re-enacted Monty Python and the Holy Grail while I puffed along behind them. We got to the summit feeling quite fine, devouring the daily special meatball subs at the summit cafeteria. Feeling so fine, in fact, that we completely forgot about the front. One minute, it was fifty degrees with a twenty knot wind. Twenty minutes later the temperature had fallen to thirty degrees, and the wind chill bumped down below zero, the wind gusting beyond hurricane force. Mother of Jesus, I thought. I can barely stand in this, and there's still eight miles above treeline.

"Screw that," said one of the gazelles. He showed me an alternate route, which, although it was not the AT, took us down a lot more rapidly to the treeline. Tuck's Ravine, one of the steepest ski slopes on the planet, would take us down to Pinkham Notch, dropping three thousand feet in the first one point two miles. "I'm in," I said. We would chop off six miles from the AT, but in the circumstances (and with my own cold-weather inexperience), I felt that it was justified.

Going down Tuck's proved challenge enough. Visibility decreased steadily. The rock cairns marking the trail appeared and disappeared in the roaring clouds. At one point, out of curiosity, I stuck my pole ahead of me to see if visibility had decreased below a meter. It had. The tip of the pole appeared and disappeared. During those periods I stopped and waited to get a fix on the next cairn, then I started again, down a barely-controlled boulder crawl. When the actual ravine appeared, a relatively sheltered area from the wind and the fog, it literally took my breath away.

Sheer sides fifteen hundred feet tall fell down to a smashing alpine floor, littered with the red crosses of emergency supply caches. Water cascaded down every crevice. Somehow the trail threaded down into this awesome waste. In winter, snow builds up in this ravine up to three hundred feet in thickness, to the point where the snow layer begins acting like a glacier. Daredevils yearly come out to test their downhill skills against the snows in this ravine, their knees meeting the slope. Sometimes they die. Without snow it held the same threat. I moved slowly to the bottom.

Sleeping that night in Pinkham Notch, I reassured myself it was not cowardice that forced me off the ridge. "It was really goddamn nasty", said the gazelle that had gone on the AT, coming into the lodge after dark. Prudence is a virtue too.


Mt. Webster Cliffs, NH
Mile unknown

Fresh from the AYCE at Crawford Notch, I had cheerfully greeted my bloated belly in the same way that the Blues Brothers greeted a full tank of gas. That was an hour ago. Now I gaze at the next cliff face from my perch on this cliff, and reflect on how awkward ten slices of bacon, five eggs, six sausages, four pancakes, two english muffins, a bagel, a donut, a liter of coffee and a cup of maple syrup can make a man. How in the hell am I going to get over there?

I climb the only way possible in these sorts of boulder scrambles: jump at a point higher than yourself and hope you stick, like one of those octopus toys that came in cereal boxes when I was a kid. As I splat into the next rock, I hug the granite with as much of my body as possible, feeling the breakfast try to come up for a breath of air. Vomit would perilously lubricate the space between my body and this rock, so I swallow and burp, tentatively. Stay down there breakfast. Nurlp. Nurlp. Gurp. My body stays stuck to this rock, my breakfast begins a more civil discussion with my body, and I begin pulling myself up the "trail". I'm averaging just over 1.2 miles per frickin hour.

Some places in the Whites are harder than others. Webster Cliffs is one of those places. Doubtless harder places wait for me tomorrow, and- oh look!- a cold front! Just in time for Mt. Washington tomorrow. You know, the Windiest Place on the Planet.

I think about sedentary life and how it seems strangely attractive, just for a moment, when I'm sure I'm about to throw up my breakfast. For some reason the internet humor site Something Awful comes to mind, specifically its inexplicable Steve Perry fanfiction. Wait wait wait wait wait. Don't think about Steve Perry, I warn myself. Don't think about Steve Perry . . Don't think about Steve Perry . . Don't think about Steve Perry.

Too late. Oh crap in a hat. Now it's stuck.

"Don't Stop!


Say hello to the Whites' new theme song.

Hitchhiking Delights

Crawford Notch, NH
Mile 1829

One of the skills I've picked up over the course of this hike is the art of hitchhiking. In a lot of ways, hitching is like gambling. You start the hitch attempt sort of wanting to get to town, in this case, for an all you can eat breakfast buffet. Time goes by. You wonder if you really want the AYCE buffet, and how wouldn't it be nice to get to the hut early before the forecast heavy weather sets in? But the thing is, the more you think about that AYCE buffet, with its limitless tanks of sausage gravy and eggs and bacon and pancakes and real local maple syrup, the less likely you are to give up the hitch. It begins to look like a big jackpot that you're just around the corner from. A jackpot filled with pork grease and sugar.

And truth be told, hitching is a something-zero game. If you can give up a certain amount of time, you get odds to win the ride. Given enough time, you will win. If there was a casino with this kind of game, people would be knocking each other over to play it, right before the house closed the game.

Then again, maybe they wouldn't. In a New Yorker article on neuroeconomics and loss aversion ("Mind Games"), researchers noted that people often choose not to gamble even when the odds are overwhelmingly in their favor. For example, if they are given a game where they have a 50-50 chance of either winning a hundred fifty dollars or losing a hundred, eighty percent choose not to play, in spite of the fact that if they play it twenty times, they will end up quite a bit ahead. "The brain has a lot of competing systems in it, and they don't always say the same thing," said a researcher in the article. You're telling me, bub.

The gambling analogy is a lot better than the charisma analogy, in which every passing car is an affront to your personal dignity. No sir. It's not a popularity contest. It's just a game.

That said, thanks to all those picking up hikers off lonesome roadways, especially Jocelyn from the AMC Highlands Center. You make us- and our bellies- very, very happy.

You make our bellies very happy until we attempt to climb four thousand feet in two miles. Then we get very very sick.

The Croo

White Mountains, NH

The White Mountain huts are operated by "croos" of excited young people with the agreeable arrogance that comes from being in your early twenties and able to haul eighty pounds of provisions over any type of terrain. They are united in their desire to avoid sedentary life for as long as possible, or, usually, for as long as their families will tolerate.

Screw their families, I say. You'll have plenty of time to get your law degree in your forties when your knees are destroyed. It's not like anyone in America is having kids, anyway, which is the only reason to be making serious money. Apart from vice.

Anyway, typical posts at an AMC hut include:

Asst. Hutmaster
Asst. To the Asst. Hutmaster

I really liked "Harpooner".
They're eccentric, but, heck, up here, who isn't?

Tiger Stripes

Galehead Hut, NH
Mile 1815

The high ridges in this part of the Whites have tiger stripes going over the dorsal, white stripes of blown-down trees wherever the ridge is near the timberline. They look like sand ripples Probably when a blowdown occurs, the open space makes it more likely that more blowdowns occur in that area. The initial blowdown is more likely to occur in the same area, due to the shape of the mountains and the prevailing wind. So you get very consistent shapes. Tiger stripes.

Thursday, September 14, 2006


North Woodstock, NH
Mile 1801
The Whites are incomparable in every way. They are easily the most scenic mountains I've seen so far, and I have yet to reach the high point of the range at Mt Washington. The descent from Mt Mooselaukee (sp?) followed what was essentially one long waterfall, Beaver Brook cascading almost continuously over four thousand vertical feet.
Weather's been good, for the Whites. Temperatures on the peaks are in the twenties and thirties, with winds running around ten knots. In a place where the average wind is hurricane force, a ten knot wind is downright hospitable.
Physically, the trail here is more demanding than anything I've ever seen, but I keep underestimating my stamina. I'm doing forteens with plenty of time left in the day, even with nine thousand foot aggregate daily gains.
Zeroing out here in Woodstock to wait out this rain and my modest hangover. Some of the guys got me a bottle of my very favorite vodka, Ciroc, and I'm afraid I overindulged. The ol' liver isn't quite as capable as it used to be. It's also probably a lot less cirrhotic.
Tomorrow we'll be seeing Franconia Ridge (home of the once Old Man of the Mountain).

Monday, September 11, 2006


Hikers Welcome Hostel, Glencliff NH
Mile 1774

There are no mountains I've ever seen that rear up quite like the Whites. Four thousand feet straight up from the valley floor of a thousand feet, an uninterrupted run in four trail miles. A day in the Whites will see the typical through-hiker gain more than ten thousand feet of altitude. Everest veterans have quit in the middle of the Whites. Needless to say, mileages in this area are not great, with 10-16 miles per day being the maximum for most people.

But the sheer beauty. The tops of the highest mountains of this range are lifeless as the surface of the moon, then you plunge through krummholtz to spruce forest and then to a northern deciduous forest. And back again. I think I'm going to like it here.

I do not know how long it will take me to get through the Whites. If we get bad weather, I could be stuck at an AMC hut for days (which is OK, as they are well-provisioned). On the other side, if I get good weather, the Whites could be done in ten to twelve days. Currently the weather is good, but a little chilly. Chilly is good. Chilly means you walk a lot faster. Walking faster means you get to the next hut faster, and in the hut there is coffee.

Regardless, it looks more and more likely that I will flip up to Katahdin from somewhere in Maine, so that I do not face a closure of the mountain before I finish. As an added benefit, flipping allows me to say goodbye to all the people I have hiked with (as well as allowing me more solitude towards the end of this trip, which is something I need).

For the rest of today, all I have to do is eat, wash, wash, wash, and call home. And eat a few more times. Life can be so simple sometimes.

Friday, September 08, 2006

All Systems Go

Incredibly, this little campsite on the edge of Hanover is in the range of a wireless network. I love college towns.

Funds have been replenished. Hiking the AT does not take place in a logistic vacuum, and I've become more and more aware of this over the past few weeks, blowing days in town moving funds around. It's worth the peace of mind to just keep the necessary funds liquid, a fact of AT life I know now all too well. Lord knows I'm busy enough getting to that damn mountain before 10/15

Now, with enough liquidity to finish the trip, I feel strangely energized, like a Saturn V smoking with condensation on the pad. I've spent too long running this trip like the Soviet space program.

No more days lost in town now. All or nothing.

Burning time

Waiting in Hanover for funds to find their way to checking. Strictly speaking, I'm in Lebanon, NH, a support community of minimum wage earners that make college towns like Hanover possible. It's every bit as bad as it sounds.

With shopping done, full of my first Taco Bell I've had on the entire trail, I am struck by how incredibly ugly strip malls can make a place. They make cars happy, I suppose, but the people inside them seem to live little better than cattle in feed pens, though most dairy cows I've seen seem in better spirits and have superior medical benefits.

The people's spirits are bowed in their labor, but do they realize that they are working for things they do not need, or even want? Why buy a throwaway digital video game for your child when you can have a grocery cart race instead? I love those. Children are a great excuse to act in the way we really want to, i.e., like we have the screaming meemies.


The good point of being stuck in Lebanon is that it has many avenues for escapism, such as a great comic book store. Good comics have been a guilty pleasure of mine for years, and I readily immersed myself in Frank Miller's "300" and "Sin City", Gaiman's "Furies", and the last installation of "Y: The Last Man", which I heard may become an HBO series.

"300" in particular was very stirring, in a manly sort of way, like:

"Come home carrying your shield or come home carried on it"

Hell yeah! Who doesn't love Spartans?

"Our arrows will blot out the sun!"
"Excellent. Then we shall fight in the shade"

This is the sort of stuff that makes good chest-pounding fun.

I'll contribute:

"Death or Maine take me!"


This is another scatterbrained post, but I'll chalk it up to Spartan blood-madness. And the fact that I really want to get out of here, and into the Whites where I can really crank up the heart rate.

Goodbye Vermont

Hanover, NH
Mile 1733

For a hundred or two miles in VT, the AT shares the trail with the Long Trail or LT. This is some beautiful country. My climb up Killington was as good as any experience I've had on the trail- the peak area reminded me of the six thousand foot spruce forest back South, only the forest was much healthier. Well, except for the weather knocking all the trees down.

Killington and Peru Peak were being blasted by the low pressure zone formerly known as Ernesto, the tropical disturbance turned into driving sleet by altitude and latitude. A thirty knot wind you can feel in your blood. Wildness like that, it throbs where it brushes, like the first touch of a woman.

Vermont is gone now. The AT where it breaks east from the LT becomes boring, steep, and very, very boggy- my hiking poles sank up to the handles in muck (this is no exaggeration), and I gave up on avoiding a mud coating for the last forty miles.

The Whites are now thirty miles away. Way I see it, the Whites are a perfectly flat stretch of trail with a few five thousand foot speed bumps. And the windiest place on Earth. Lowest wind-chill factor on Earth too, incidentally. No problem. Weather looks good, and with a recent cash infusion, I can stay at the huts if I want. The huts in the Whites are basically rustic little inns, strategically placed at convenient intervals, and they won't kick you out if you're in danger of flying off in a hundred knot gust.

Incredibly, less than five hundred miles (440) to Katahdin. It's going to be very close to the October 15 deadline. It's sort of hard to believe I'm this close.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


Hanover, NH
Mile 1733

Over the past decade, I have become something of a materialist. I have not always been so. I used to think that ideas shaped the larger world of human affairs, love and beauty mattered more than steel and concrete. It's a good recipe for a long term drunk. Being an idealist, that is.

On the trail, however, I begin to see that dismissing intellectual history is like rejecting language. Ideas exist because they describe reality particularly well. They are reality, they are the power behind history. Wars are fought to control the place in which the ideas are stored- minds, books, computers. They are ideas waging war on other ideas, by attacking the ground in which ideas can grow. The ideas are the competing organisms, fighting on a battleground of possible futures.

It is somewhat frightening, thinking of things like "The Reformation" and "Communism" as gigantic five-dimensional macrointelligences controlling human affairs. But as our minds become better connected- more like nodes than individuals- these idea forces take on more substance. They rear, monolith, over human affairs of the 21st century. I am not sure if their sudden solidity makes me feel better or worse about the futur

The Ring

Manchester Center, VT
Mile 1636

There's been a scenario that I've played out in my mind, a mental image that has helped me put one foot in front of the other for these hundreds of miles. In it, I meet Monica on Katahdin and ask for her to be my wife. It seemed a suitable action-hero way to propose. The accompanying snow and wind would also provide a useful analogy to matrimony to myself. This mental image was a warm globe that I could rely on to force me up the next thousand, three thousand, six thousand feet.

What actually happened, we decided to go on a day hike during her visit in Sheffield. It was more of a rain hike. We strolled up a moderate grade to a waterfall. As we gently lowered ourselves down a slope to an overlook, Monica turned suddenly around with a tiny box in her hands. She opened it. Inside was a ring. "So- will you marry me?", she asked.

What could I say? She's been with me through my mood swings, my alcoholism, my limitless capacity for fecklessness and God knows what else, not least of which is this trip- an enforced six month absence from which she receives no physical promise of security, except for my word over the phone that I have become the best man I have ever been in my entire life.

For the past five years, she has been the warm, glowing center my life has revolved around. There's nothing I am that would be possible without her. I love her.

For a split second, I wondered how I was going to explain this gender flip to my family- Monica proposing to me, after all. I decided that wasn't that important right now. It's the 21st Century, after all.

All these things flew through my mind in that moment. "Yes . .yes", I said, as I drew her to me.

We hugged for a long time, there in the rain, me whispering, yes, I will marry you, yes. I glow in the remembering of that moment.

It's a moment I will carry with me for the rest of my life. The ring is titanium- a hiker's ring- virtually weightless, but shining on my finger, a reminder of the moment.

As it turned out, my proposal idea couldn't have happened, as Monica has a board meeting to attend on my summit date. We might have otherwise ended up proposing to each other at the same time. Although this would have been sort of humorous, I can't think of a better way for it to have happened than the way it did.

I'll make my own proposal bid later, in the year we have before a marriage date. It'll be a good one, at a random moment (don't let your guard down sweetheart). During a good hurricane maybe. Something powerful, something as unpredictable as it is inevitable. In other words, something like love itself.